We typically think of this time of year as “the dog days of summer,” when the world heads for vacation and our troubles feel very remote.
But not this year.
A few days ago, the world received an urgent wake-up call. It has implications for all of us, especially those in the regions CNEWA serves.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently submitted its Sixth Assessment Report on the state of global climate change to the United Nations on 9 August. The report has several sections and is nothing short of massive. The full report, “Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis,” is almost 4,000 pages long. The news is not good.
The report states that human activity is unequivocally responsible for the present, deteriorating state of Earth’s climate. The Washington Post cites Alexander Ruane, a scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and an author of the latest report: “ ‘We are very careful around confidence statements,’ he said. ‘What you’re seeing here is a very strong statement.’ The wording is also representative of how far the science has come over the decades. The 1995 IPCC report, which at the time was groundbreaking, wrote that ‘the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.’ The 2014 version of the report said that ‘human influence on the climate system is clear.’ Today, it’s ‘unequivocal.’ ”
In 25 years, we have moved from the “evidence suggesting” to the unequivocal conviction that not only is the planet getting warmer, but we are responsible for it.
We have heard this before — and from a very familiar source.
On 24 May 2015, Pope Francis published the encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home.” In the encyclical, Francis recognizes not only the impact that global warming has had on human life but also that the conversation is not merely “scientific,” dealing with data and trends; it is also moral and ethical.
The pope states: “The climate is a common good, belonging to us all meant for us all” (23). The discussion, therefore, is not merely about temperature, but about human responsibility for the common good. Francis sees the decline in the quality of human life, global inequality, the “common destination of goods” as intimately linked to climate degradation and as essential to solving the problem as is carbon reduction.
Francis calls for an “integral spirituality.” While it is the pope’s attempt to deal with a very contemporary problem, the idea behind it is quite ancient. The Christian life, and human life in general, is not compartmentalized into the “moral,” that is, those things which are clearly right or wrong and everything else. Because of its profoundly incarnational nature, Christian life is concerned with all things that are part of creation. A morality limited only to the Ten Commandments is not sufficient. With the Incarnation, the Word of God became flesh, a human being, part of creation. Paul notes that in Christ “all Creation is in one great act of coming to birth” (cf. Rom 8:22). The integral spiritualty for which Francis is calling is basically the Christian vocation to strive for the common good of all creation.
In a highly urbanized world, nature is rather remote. During the pandemic, traffic — and hence noise and pollution — in New York City came to a virtual standstill. New Yorkers started to see birds they had never seen before right outside their windows. Wildlife became more abundant in the larger city parks. Many people became aware of how isolated from nature urban living had become.
The years of the COVID-19 pandemic and especially 2021 — when things were supposed to be “better” — have seen unprecedented natural disasters. Huge fires around the world have destroyed entire towns and hundreds of thousands of acres of forestland and its wildlife. At the same time, parts of Europe have experienced flooding of unheard-of proportions.
In parts of CNEWA’s world — notably Africa, India and the Middle East — the effects of climate change have been severe and dramatic, causing everything from severe drought to devastating storms and flooding. Families and homes have been wiped out. Poverty and disease can become even more widespread.
Yet, for most of the urban world, it seems remote. Even the blood-red moons and sunrises in skies, filled with smoke from fires thousands of miles away, do not seem to evoke any great sense of urgency. There is a French word “déraciner,” which means to uproot or to remove someone from their natural environment and deprive them of their roots. In many ways the modern, urban person has been deracinated from nature.
As an Incarnation-focused religion, Christianity sees the sacred in the created world: Light, water, oil, bread and wine are not merely commodities; they can be sacraments. Christians sacralize time with festivals and seasons. In the past, many Christians ceremonies and rites were closely connected with nature. Fields were blessed at sowing and harvest — the Rogation Days — and other days of blessing; animals were blessed on the feast of St. Francis. There was the ancient observance of Lammas, “loaf mass day,” on 1 August. Falling halfway between the summer solstice and autumn equinox, Lammas celebrated the grain harvest and the “first loaf” of that harvest. Celebrations, both religious and other, highlighted Lammas, with the Eucharist being central to the feast.
While many of these rites were deeply rooted in agriculture and husbandry — the earth — the modern person lives in a very different world, a world in some ways richer and in other ways more impoverished in every sense. The modern urbanite tends, often unconsciously, to see themselves over and against nature rather than an integral part of it. Nature, even water, is a commodity. We no longer feel “rooted” in nature; we have become deracinated.
Francis’ call to an integral spirituality is, therefore, a huge challenge that requires from the modern urbanite not only commitment but also creativity. Integral spirituality is not a romantic call to go back to the “good old days.” It is rather a profound challenge to be responsible and aware citizens of the 21st century. It is a challenge to “strike new roots” in nature and to realize the interconnectivity — one of the pope’s favorite expressions — of all things.
For those of us who minister and work in regions of the world dealing with the serious consequences of climate change, this challenge is one we cannot ignore.
In very different ways, “Laudato Si’ ” and “Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis” are saying similar things. Both are calls — one a moral call and the other a scientific, existential call — for humans to change how we behave or run the risk of losing our future.
A Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, Father Elias Mallon is the external affairs officer for CNEWA.